By Pico Iyer
Published: August 19 2005 10:26 Last updated: August 19 2005 10:26
The night is very dark in Dharamsala, the small hill station in northern India where the Dalai Lama lives, and the shops are so few that after 9pm you can see more stars than lights. Internet connections are always a gamble here, not least because the phones tend to go down as soon as the electricity comes back on, and it's not often I can access AOL in less than two hours flat (in the land that produces many of the world's greatest software engineers).
Yet at 11.17pm, a figure is hunched over two computers (the only two) in the Tibetan government-in-exile's guesthouse. Tickets for a U2 concert in Los Angeles seven months later are about to go on sale (at 10am in California), and this fool is trying to get online the moment they become available at www.ticketmaster.com. He clicks away frantically while a night-watchman shoots him baleful glances and wild dogs bark across the hills.
They're a global band, I tell myself - for the fool is me - not sure I can persuade even my only listener of the virtue of such madness. U2 speaks for some of the same possibilities of the one-world order offered by the Dalai Lama across the way. I will fly from Japan to Los Angeles on November 1: how better to celebrate the convulsions of a 10-hour flight backwards across the date line than by jumping into a rental car and driving to a local basketball arena to see Bono sing 'City of Blinding Lights'? If the elevation and intensity of the band talking about African debt statistics doesn't transport me, the jet-lag surely will.
I go online 40 minutes in advance, to be safe, and play my fingers lightly over the mouse, as Vladimir Horowitz on his keys. I check the clocks on the screen, the clock on the wall, the watch and the alarm clock I've brought from my room. At 11.26pm, I slip into the site early - and there, miraculously, appears a box inviting me to the best seats the Staples Centre has on offer.
'Do you want these now?' it asks me.
'Yes,' I click. 'Fill out the boxes in the next three minutes,' it adds. I do as required. 'Password?' it asks.
I don't have a password to a website I've never used before. My bank password, my credit-card password? I type them all in.
'Sorry,' says the message. 'Your time has elapsed.'
On the second screen, some of the almost-best tickets the Staples Centre has on offer are suddenly available. I fill out the boxes in the requisite three minutes and then see, 'Password?'
I try again. The one password I use for everything. 'Sorry, your three minutes have elapsed.'
Then, taking pity on me: 'Would you like to be reminded of your password?' Of course I would. 'Yes!'
It is e-mailed to my AOL account, though of course the one machine that occasionally accesses AOL now declines to do so. The box blithely announces, 'No tickets available at this time.' (And the next seven weeks would be spent entering the hitherto unimaginable universe of eBay, and wiring hundreds of dollars to a suspicious-sounding Irishman in the East End of London who promises me deals not available 'through the regular channels'.)
I am not, by most people's reckoning, a fanatic. I'd actually sneered at U2 when its first album was pressed on me by a guitar-playing intellectual with whom I was teaching Shakespeare in 1980. But I live these days in rural Japan, with no bicycle, no car, no news or magazines, and barely room for six or so CDs in a two-room apartment (population four). Two of those CD's are by U2. So seeing the band, and sending all my money to criminals, came to seem more important than actually thinking about all the people U2 is singing for, who live, often, on less than a pound a day.
As the days in Dharamsala turned into eternities - me furiously engaged in on-line bartering while elderly Tibetans walked past to pray for long life for the Dalai Lama - I began to wonder what globalism really means. In the Current Event cafe, young global villagers were singing 'One', the bitter (Bono's word) song the band composed for a Tibetan freedom concert. Exile comes in as many flavours today as cappuccino. And three weeks ago, I flew from Los Angeles to Denmark to stand in a thunderstorm for three hours. U2 were singing of 'one love, one world' - in Copenhagen.
Pico Iyer is a travel writer. Born in India, educated in England, naturalised in the US and now living in rural Japan, his latest book is 'Sun After Dark' (Bloomsbury).